Sunset (Tale of Tales)

sunset1

Sunset is the story of Angela Burnes, an African-American woman who has become the housekeeper of Ortega, a wealthy man in the fictional Latin American country of Anchuria. The time is 1972, in the middle of that country’s civil war. Every week Angela spends an hour before sunset tidying her employer’s house in the rose-orange half-light.

During that time the player can go through Ortega’s possessions, getting to know the man better, checking chores off the day’s list. Eventually, Ortega starts leaving notes around the house, which the player can answer. Many chore actions and note-answers offer two variants, a flirtatious one and a cold one, but Ortega also responds to any sign of human presence. Leave his lights on, leave his water running, and his love for you will grow.

The apartment changes from visit to visit. Sometimes there’s a mess, left over from Ortega’s activities. Sometimes there’s new mail or rearranged books. Ortega changes from week to week which doors of his apartment are locked, which means that the whole floor plan of the apartment is rarely available to us at once; the apartment retains some more private areas that we only get to visit once or twice.

The ability to section off parts of the floor plan helps direct the player each day, though it was (I found) an only middling solution: on several days Angela was assigned chores so vaguely described that I couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to go in order to perform them. Somewhere in the apartment, from some angle, there would be a hot spot that would complete the chore in question, and I’d wander around all the rooms over and over, curious, then confused, then bored.

I began to enjoy Sunset more when I decided to let myself skip chores that proved too hard to find.

Fortunately, Ortega’s a forgiving boss, so even if Angela leaves some tasks undone, he never fires her and the story never comes to a mid-game halt. And the system seems designed in part to push the player towards romance, towards the flourishing of a sense of intimacy with someone never seen or encountered.

Sometimes the interactive flirtation worked for me, though more when it took the form of physical gestures rather than words: I was happy enough to leave Ortega’s possessions attractively laid out, but some of Angela’s flirtatious messages to Ortega are more overtly sexy than I found… plausible? comfortable? …given that they’ve never even been in the same room together. This may partly be a reflection of the writing generally: Angela’s inner monologues were often a bit on the nose for me, too, though not so much so as to ruin the experience. Conversely, I was amused the time I took the black queen off the chess board, and returned to find that he’d removed the black king as well.

Eventually, as things break down in the city outside, the apartment becomes more and more cluttered with objects that Ortega has rescued: crates and boxes, maps, museum plans. Hallways that used to be useful become blocked with junk, forcing me to go the long way around. Angela’s inner voice was frustrated, though not as frustrated as my own.

The thing I like best about this gameplay is the way it allows for improvising small expressive moments. The way I’m drawn to the window by the sound of jet fighters outside, and watch the contrails nervously even though I know it’s just a parade demonstration. The way I turn on a record and sit in a chair to listen to it after my chores are done, reaching for some quiet. The way, on other days, that I rush through my chores and leave again as soon as possible, currently annoyed with Ortega and not willing to linger in his space. The pleasure I take in the sight of my shadow cast across the carpet. The nervousness when I look out the window and see the city burning right before the protagonist was supposed to head home — surely it would be safer for her to sleep overnight in Ortega’s apartment than to go out alone in that chaos? The shock of hearing a bomb go off and seeing its flash in the lighting change around me.

Late in the game I found myself updating the calendar to the current date, even though that seemed pointless and futile, just as a touchstone for the earlier times when I had been meticulous about that ritual.

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Pricing Freelance Projects

After my previous career-related post, various people have reached out to me with further questions about how this all works. In a bit of an experiment in transparency, I thought I’d write a bit about how I price projects when someone comes to me for a quote.

A couple of disclaimers: I also sometimes do work on retainer or do on-going research consulting. Those raise other considerations and are not what I’m describing here. This post is about work on finite client projects, typically including some creative input. Second, I can only describe how things work for me, not how they’ll work for everyone.

With that in mind, here’s Rule 1: Quote a number where I will be equally happy if the client agrees to hire me at that price or if they say no.

This is just another way of saying “ask for what the project is worth to you,” but I think it’s useful to spell out the “to you” part. A lot of people get hung up on trying to determine the value of a project on supposedly objective terms, which is hard to do, especially with creative projects for which there’s not an obvious market set point. Or people try to price based on how they relate their ego to the market, which is prone to lots of problems as well (impostor syndrome, delusions of grandeur).

The other thing about this approach is that it increases overall peace of mind. I’ve had some jobs where in retrospect I probably could have gotten more if I’d asked, and other pitches that got turned down because I was asking more than the client had in their budget. But the knowledge that I set those prices according to my own needs means I can live with those outcomes without too much second-guessing. (I do also negotiate and re-scope projects with clients who have small budgets, but that’s a matter of redefining the project until it becomes worth it to me at the price they have to spend.)

That still leaves a lot of questions about how to figure out what something is worth to me.

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18 Rooms to Home (Carolyn VanEseltine): rooms 18, 17, 16

Carolyn VanEseltine is releasing a serial parser IF project called 18 Rooms to Home. The serial is working backwards in time: Room 18 was released first, than Room 17, then Room 16. So Room 18 represents the ending of the story, the point where the protagonist has arrived at home. Room 17 starts you in the room just before you get home, but includes the 18th room. Room 16 is a three-room game that, again, starts a bit earlier than Room 17.

This backwards, Memento-esque story structure might seem counterintuitive in IF, especially since it makes the player replay the story’s ending over and over. But Carolyn is doing something very ingenious with it. In Room 18, there is, as far as I can tell, only one way that the story can end. Room 17 introduces new information, skills, and possibilities, which in turn means a new possible outcome. Room 16 layers on yet a third (at least — it’s conceivable, I suppose, that there are even more variations I’m not aware of). Even when the player gets back to a room or prop she’s already seen in a previous episode, there are new possibilities.

This in turn does a great job of building up the player’s sense of consequence. Even when there are a lot of branches in a traditional-format story game, there’s no guarantee that the player will see all the variant endings, or that she’ll realize all the points at which branching could occur. But playing through 18 Rooms an episode at a time means learning exactly what is allowed to go differently, and why, as more and more past branch points are introduced.

As for the story itself, much remains shrouded in mystery at this point, but it seems to involve competing powers — whether superhero-style powers, or something more Nobilis-like and mystical, I am not yet entirely sure. I’m enjoying guessing, though, and staring at props in certain rooms that aren’t useful currently but that might become useful at some future date…

If you decide to play and speculate along with others, there’re a couple of related threads (hints, general discussion) on the intfiction forum. Selfishly, I am hoping that others will help encourage Carolyn to finish the project — I really want to see where it goes…

Cinders (Moacube)

only it was really too inconvenient, you see,
not least when it shattered on the staircase
I was running up to catch the last train…
Apologies for Breaking the Glass Slipper, Isabel Yap

When I’m drawn to adapt a traditional story to interactive fiction, it’s often because there’s something about the original that bothers me so deeply that I feel I need to address it. Part of the reason I rework fairy tales is that I have such a love-hate relationship with them: I was raised on them, read them avidly as a child, but consider them to have been terrible guidance in many many ways. Especially, especially, the Cinderella-style model of passive virtue for women that said, Don’t complain if people aren’t giving you your fair share. If people ask too much of you, comply anyway. Put yourself last in all circumstances. Endure anything that comes your way. Never speak up for yourself. In the end, your patience may be acknowledged and rewarded by someone else, but not, of course, at your own instigation.

This bit of feminine cultural programming is grotesquely unhealthy, not only because it subjects the model Patient Woman to a lot of unnecessary suffering, but because it actually makes it hard for other people to treat you well or for resources to be sensibly allocated. Other people cannot be expected always to guess accurately what’s a reasonable thing to ask of you and what’s an unfair imposition. When they ask something that’s an imposition, a lot of the time they’re relying on you to say no if no is the appropriate answer. If you don’t ever push back, you cast other people as the villains in your story without their necessarily ever intending to have that role. If you never say no, you allow your time to be spent frivolously on things that might not even matter all that much to the asker, instead of on things that might make a big difference elsewhere.

I’m still fighting to reprogram myself. I think maybe other women sometimes are too. Cinderella, I notice, gets retold a lot from the perspective of women who are trying to make the lead character a little less passive, a little less obedient. Rosamund Hodge’s novella Gilded Ashes explains Cinderella’s cooperation through a novel twist: the ghost of Cinderella’s mother still haunts the area, and reacts with such terrible vengeance towards anyone it perceives making Cinderella unhappy that the girl has to feign a good mood all the time, or face being responsible for the violence that will result.

Then there’s Cinders.

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Cinders is a visual novel adaptation of Cinderella that takes a shot at this same issue. It’s been out for a few years, but recently a friend gave me a Steam key for it, so I only played a month or so ago. It has a lot to commend it: the art is very attractive while not belonging to the usual anime categories; the story offers a high number of branches and subbranches; and the whole thrust of both story and mechanics is to interrogate the “be quiet, put up with being bossed around, and eventually you’ll be rewarded with a man” message of the original fairy tale.

This Cinderella has the opportunity to be passively obedient (“good”), assertively selfish (“bad”), or “smart” (here’s a spoilery breakdown of how stats are distributed over the course of the game). Being smart is usually a third-way path that acknowledges nuance and complexity in interpersonal matters while rejecting fantasies and delusions about magic. The conventionally “best” outcome, where Cinders marries the prince and then presides over a happy kingdom, requires a balanced behavioral profile. And whatever happens, the Cinders in this story doesn’t get any outcome without working for it.

I think there’s still further to dig into the Cinderella problem — the difficult thing in my experience is not so much about whether one should sometimes stand up for oneself, but about when, and how, and how to balance other people’s needs with yours when you’re out of practice making that calculation, and how to deal with the emotional fallout of standing up for yourself when you’re still counting your own “virtue” in terms of the number of other people’s tasks you did today.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the spin Cinders put on this old problem, and the fact that some of the happy endings didn’t wind up joining me with the prince at all, but let me have other lovers, or solitude, or even something approximating a career.

So You Want to Write IF: A Party Game for LudoLunch

LudoLunch was a game designers’ picnic lunch held in Christchurch Meadow yesterday by Simon Roth, Nia Wearn, and compatriots. (Edited to add Nia — apologies for leaving her out initially, as I hadn’t realized she was co-organizer here.)

Simon asked if I would talk about interactive fiction, and it only really hit me after I accepted that the parameters of a family picnic ruled out most of the kinds of intro IF talk I usually give. We wouldn’t have computers or projection screens or wifi, so I couldn’t teach Twine or inklewriter or Inform. I couldn’t run Lost Pig or Aisle, or do a slideshow overview of recent or canonical IF. Even some non-techy options were out too: it can be fun playing through good paper CYOA books in a small group, taking turns reading passages aloud, but that’s more a 2-6 person activity, and ideally done someplace quiet enough that no one has to shout. Besides, I wanted to communicate something about the diversity of current IF and the appeal of creating it. This was a dev crowd, after all.

Finally, this was a family event including small kids, which meant a) attention spans were likely to be shorter and b) it wasn’t the ideal place to do a presentation on, say, Horse Master, or queer sexualities in interactive fiction, or IF explorations of the problems with late-stage capitalism.

Below is what I came up with: a casual party game meant to give a partial taste of what IF writing involves, and hint at the diversity of IF games out there in the world, while being as flexible as possible about the audience size and composition.

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Language and the Interface exhibit

Galatea at Coimbra

Language and the Interface was part of the international conference “Digital Literary Studies” hosted by the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Coimbra, May 14-15, 2015. They showed off a number of text-based interactive works, including Galatea, 18 Cadence, and Facade.

The website offers extra background on all the exhibits shown, and links to many of them to play online. I was particularly amused by the underachiever’s platformer Nothing You Have Done Deserves Such Praise, which offers explosions and lavish compliments when the player manages to do things like falling off a ledge — but there’s a lot else to check out here, especially for those interested in interactive poetry and the less game-like relatives of interactive fiction.